Internet Freedom in Iraq-Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

8 Dec, 2015

The rate of internet access is growing at an increasing pace in Iraq; it is fueled by the introduction of relatively modern generations of mobile networks and social media usage. The internet finds its place in every aspect of our everyday life, from shopping, chatting, and sharing of personal videos and photos to the organization of protests and mass revolutions. As a consequence, the internet is greatly influencing our most fundamental human rights, particularly freedom of expression.

The 2012 Iraqi constitution upholds and protects freedom of expression.¹This came after a legacy of very strict cyber regulation in the Ba’ath era. The country made its initial steps toward free and unfettered internet access in compliance with international standards of human rights. However, the internet has become part of the power struggle that might ignite sectarian and ethnic conflicts and undermine online freedom of expression, thus creating a huge disparity between the Law’s provisions and their application on end users’ behaviors when using the internet.

Furthermore, as a part of dramatic social, political, and economic transformation, the media in Iraq has turned to the most restricted media in the region with a lack of innovation, objectivity, infrastructure, and professional news production, which hinders the steps towards a proper implementation of media laws.

This condition is fueled by the turmoil and political crisis that raises security concerns and has opened doors for the Iraqi government to justify their acts of censorship and surveillance, sometimes by blocking social media applications in critical areas such as the Iraqi provinces under ISIS control.

This government behavior is claimed to be a protective measure to prevent the spread of terrorism. It is simply not an effective strategy since it can be bypassed easily by using tools such as proxy services or internet anonymizing tools. As a result, it amplifies the problem rather than addressing it.Moreover, this policy endangers the population who rely mainly on social media communication.

The social uprising in the Arab world had highlighted the crucial role of the internet in triggering the organization of mass protests and amplifying the voices of communities. It also provoked governments to reassess their cyber regulation laws and produce overbearing legislation that infringes upon the most basic human rights, like freedom of expression.

An example of this is the controversial “information cybercrime law”² that was supposed to enact very severe sentences for vaguely worded offenses. Besides the issue of human rights violation, the draft law failed to identify threats or propose an effective risk mitigation mechanism and procedures that could be applicable online.  

Although that draft was not passed,³ we are still witnessing many governments and political parties sponsoring cyber regulation and censorship acts, which are sometimes reaching  to physical assault and murder, as Reporters without Borders said that armed groups “have no compunction” about killing media workers.
Another pivotal element that can directly impact the development of free, resilient media in Iraq is the vertical integration model and monopolies that limit fair competition and centralize power in the hands of certain companies, thus enabling easier filtering and censorship.

Those obstacles make the internet economy in Iraq relatively underdeveloped as compared with other countries since it is lacking even the most primitive rights protections. This put the country in a vicious circle and curbs its potential development.

Therefore, we need a multi-faceted rehabilitation – a repair approach comprises all parts of the internet ecosystem to face these challenges, targeting first the community as a principal constituent by establishing a strong awareness-building platform and creating a more actively engaged role for civil society.

Legislation and the design of strong regulations that enhance free internet usage instead of clamping down on basic human rights will strengthen a democratic Iraq and bridge the gaps between the Constitution and its application. This will not open the door to terrorism, as many may suggest.

The adoption of a multi-stakeholder model and encouragement of market competition will improve internet service and guarantee a more liberated flow of and access to information. 

Finally, creating a balance between cyber security and human rights protection, ensuring an independent and impartial regulatory panel of the communication commission, and paying more attention to the country’s ruined infrastructure will all foster a healthy internet ecosystem in Iraq. These reforms are an incentive for IG stakeholders in Iraq to draw a roadmap toward safeguarded internet environment and greater protection of human rights.  

¹ Article 38 of Iraq’s constitution states:
The state shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality:
  1. Freedom of expression using all means.
  2. Freedom of the press, printing, advertisement, media and publications.
  3. Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration.
And this shall be regulated by law.
It is worthy to note that Iraq is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966(ICCPR).
²Iraq`s information crimes law / Human Rights Watch
³ Cybercrime law in Iraq revoked / SMEX

Author: Nawras Mahir